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Football: Northwestern Tampa bound after earning Outback Bowl bid

Robbie Levin

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For the first time since 1997, Northwestern will conclude its season in Florida.

On Sunday, the Wildcats accepted a bid to face Auburn in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, 2010.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity, not only for our football program, but for our entire university,” Athletic Director Jim Phillips said. “To be showcased on New Year’s Day has significant meaning to this entire university and the Northwestern community.”

The Outback Bowl, which has the third selection among Big Ten affiliated bowls, picked Iowa over NU last year, even though the Cats had one more win.

This year, NU did the leapfrogging. The Cats were chosen ahead of Wisconsin, even though the Badgers have one more win.

“What it came down to was Northwestern and Wisconsin played a couple of weeks ago, and Northwestern beat them,” Outback Bowl President Jim McVay said. “(NU) is a fun, wide open offense. They’re exciting. They have a hell of a quarterback. It just seemed like it was going to be a good matchup.”

Phillips, who had been in non-stop communication with bowl officials over the past several weeks, made sure to note the nearly 18,000 NU alumni in the Florida area and the 158 daily flights from Chicago to Tampa.

“The facts are the facts,” said Phillips, who received a phone call from Outback Bowl representatives when he was driving home from the Chicago Bears game this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. “If you look at last year’s travel, if you look at our history since 1995, we just tried to put that in order.”

This will be the Cats’ first appearance in the Outback Bowl, played at Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Every time we go on the road recruiting, I always want to know if we can go eat at Outback Steakhouse,” coach Pat Fitzgerald joked. “This is this team’s first opportunity to go to Florida. To play on January 1 against an outstanding SEC team, you couldn’t ask for a better challenge.”

By Jan. 1, NU will have had a 40-day layoff since it last played. By comparison, Auburn will have been off 34 days.

The Cats were at a similar disadvantage last year, when their bowl opponent Missouri played in the Big 12 Championship game two weeks after NU’s season finale. Still, Fitzgerald was pleased with the team’s bowl practice schedule last year, and the coaches will implement a parallel routine this year.

“We’ll have a similar model, from a structure standpoint,” Fitzgerald said. “But at the end of the day it goes back to consistently preparing. We just have a little more time.”

NU will be looking to win its first bowl game since a 20-14 victory over California in the 1949 Rose Bowl.

“(Winning a bowl game) would be a huge, lasting legacy that these seniors left on the program,” senior defensive end Corey Wootton said. “We’re excited.”

This is only the second time in program history NU has gone to back-to-back bowls. The only other time it happened was in 1996 and 1997, when the Cats went to the Rose and Citrus Bowls, respectively.

“When I was recruited here in 1993, the one thing that was used against Northwestern was consistent success on the field,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve erased that negative toward our program. We’ve gone in a completely different direction and now we’re a consistent winner.”

robertlevin2012@u.northwestern.edu

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